Chapel Hill's initial concept plan review for the Inter-Faith Council men's homeless shelter had very little to do with bricks and mortar, water and sewer. The Town Council meeting was more about Chapel Hill's homeless and what social and ethical responsibility, if any, lies with the community to help rehabilitate veterans, the mentally and physically ill, the jobless or former prisoners—none of whom have a home.
"This is not to be construed as a flophouse or a place where people can come and go at will," said Chris Moran, executive director of the Inter-Faith Council, which runs the shelter. If Council approves final plans, the shelter would move from downtown to the Northwest Side, at the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Homestead Road, where it will provide job coaches, counselors and a medical, mental health and dental clinic. "This is going to be a place where people, based on eligibility, get a bed, and they have to earn the opportunity to move from a bunk, from an emergency room to a quad to a double and then move back into the community and become home dwellers again."
None of the Chapel Hill residents who passionately spoke before Town Council on the relocation of the shelter was so bold as to openly oppose IFC's work. Many, however, said they vehemently oppose the IFC doing its work near where they live.
Such is the dilemma for the IFC: The nonprofit is trying to help the most vulnerable people in the community, but like those it serves, the group is confronting a stigma associated with homelessness.
The first concept plan review, presented to Town Council Monday night, made clear that building a 50-bed, 16,000-square-foot facility will not be swift or easy.
Councilman Ed Harrison tempered the IFC's plans, which call for a special-use permit application to be filed next month, a construction bid to be awarded in December 2010 and occupancy in January 2012.
"I'm looking at the timetable, and you need to throw it out."
The current homeless shelter and kitchen sits at 100 W. Rosemary St., the old municipal building that the town has offered as a temporary site since 1985. The shelter must move because it has outgrown the space. The IFC wants to separate the kitchen from the shelter; the town, also short of space, wants its building back.
For the past 10 years, the IFC has pursuing more than a dozen locations that each failed for a different reason: a lack of access to transportation, insufficient plumbing, or complaints by NIMBYs.
Now, UNC has given the IFC this 1.6-acre site. Moran calls the location ideal, noting the nearby bus lines and Southern Human Services Center, and the longstanding partnership his group has had with the neighboring church.
Others, like Tina CoyneSmith, who spoke to council on behalf of hundreds of Parkside neighborhood residents—all dressed in red—sees it as less than ideal. She cited statistics on mental illness and the number of homeless people who have been arrested in Chapel Hill, and unveiled a map showing nearby parks and day care centers.
"This is not a NIMBY issue. We already have lots of public services in our backyard," she said. "We find these folks to be good citizens and good neighbors; however, we do not want an inequitable distribution."
Fifteen people spoke before Town Council, including former shelter volunteers who vouched for the men there. Other residents said they didn't want to raise their families near people of that ilk. One man suggested that a homeless person might have robbed his home, though he had no evidence. No one offered an alternative site.
Perhaps the most fitting remarks came from Councilman Jim Ward, who told opponents to stop thinking of the homeless as "bogeymen."
"These are you and your existing neighbors except they don't have a shelter over their head," he said. "Don't create a bogeyman. These people are no different than you or me."
⇒ Read also: "More details in IFC mens shelter relocation effort"